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Waste Workers

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Tonight, I put out my trash and my recycling. What will happen to it tomorrow morning when the workers come pick it up? Almost no one thinks about this. Especially when it comes to recycling, we are convinced of our own good behavior to an extent that we usually assume that something goods come of it. But the reality is that these are hard, nasty jobs with employers who often heavily exploit the workers and provide highly unsafe working conditions. The Teamsters have organized some waste workers, but many remain unorganized. This report on waste workers in New York, where you have a panoply of private companies who contract with the city and therefore a mix of union and non-union shops, is pretty disturbing.

IN THE BEST SCENARIO, A WASTE collector will suffer chronic back pain, joint fatigue and sleep deprivation. In the worst, his life is what Thomas Hobbes might have called “nasty, brutish and short.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists refuse collection, both public and private, as one of the 10 most dangerous occupations in America based on fatalities, far more than those of police or firefighters. When one accounts for physical degradation and quality of life, the statistics become far more perilous.

New York City’s Department of Sanitation is among the most respected in the country. Its workers, who are Teamsters, work no more than eight hours a day, are paid close to $80,000 a year and enjoy generous benefit packages. They collect 10,500 tons of refuse each day from city residents and institutions.

In comparison, the private carting industry in New York City is a largely unregulated enterprise where more than 100 carting companies, large and small, compete to pick up the refuse of 100,000 businesses. In one night, some 20 trucks from different companies could visit a single city block, bringing with them all the concomitant emissions, traffic and safety concerns.

“AS A WORKER, YOU ARE TREATED like the truck. You are treated like a machine,” said Carl Orlando, a former sanitation worker for Liberty Ashes who says he has worked in all aspects of the industry, from hauling garbage to office work to customer relations. He and several former co-workers have sued the company, accusing it of wage theft and other pay violations.

“There’s no training. There’s no safety meetings. There’s no gear. There is no taking days off. There’s no benefits. They don’t even pay overtime,” he said.

He, like others, stressed that not all private waste companies are the same, and that they vary widely in how they treat workers. But in his experience, the so-called “low-road” companies routinely put workers’ safety in jeopardy.

Like many workers in the industry, Orlando said he was paid for a fixed number of hours no matter how long he worked — something he and others say incentivizes dangerous habits. He said he was paid for a 10-hour day but routinely had to work 12-, 13-, even 14-hour shifts to complete his route.

“You want to get through it as quick as possible, because you don’t want that truck on the road as people are trying to go to work, and you have one truck out there trying to do the work of three,” Orlando said. “I’ve driven all night, didn’t stop for any red lights, went from one side of the street to the other, on the wrong side of the street, and I still couldn’t get it done.”

Wage theft is a common accusation against such companies. Three other workers — Marco Flores, Antonio Santos and Oscar Tudon — filed a class-action lawsuit against Five Star in July 2015 for unpaid wages.

The suit alleges the men “were not paid overtime premium pay for hours worked over forty (40) hours per week, did not receive wages for all hours worked, had meal breaks automatically deducted from their wages regardless of whether they actually took the full break, did not receive prevailing wages when they worked on public works projects, did not receive wage notice or proper wage statements.”

Workers say the companies have other means of skirting their obligations, too.

Juan Feliz worked for Mr. T’s Carting for close to 10 years. In 2013, at the age of 35, he was diagnosed with lung and throat cancer. He now speaks through a voicebox after surgery left a hole in his trachea.

After his diagnosis and first surgery, Feliz said his bosses treated him differently.

“When I went back to the company, I was treated worse than the garbage I was supposed to pick up,” he said.

Feliz said the company asked him to change doctors. Then he said the boss, Peter Toscano, told him he would have to wait for further treatment.

“Toscano said I had to wait until next year because I had exhausted my funds,” Feliz said.

As his medical bills piled up, Mr. T’s Carting suddenly asked Feliz to do something it never had before: take an off-site drug test. He typically took drug tests on site, according to a judge’s ruling.

He agreed to the off-site test, but it was scheduled for a cold day in January. As Feliz tried to get to the facility, he had trouble breathing. Blood started pouring from his tracheal tube, and he canceled the appointment. He rescheduled again, but when he arrived there was a long wait, and he left to pick up his 9-year-old daughter from school.

Mr. T’s fired him, accusing him of refusing to take the drug test. When he tried to collect unemployment, the company rejected his claim. Feliz filed an appeal.

Better conditions for these workers should be part of our civic responsibility. They are picking up our trash and recycling. We owe it to them that they don’t get hurt or die doing it.

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  • Snarki, child of Loki

    Tonight, I put out my trash and my recycling. What will happen to it tomorrow morning …?

    Nothing. The trash will just sit there, because tomorrow is Memorial Day.

    Didn’t you check first?

    • OK, I GUESS IT WILL SIT THERE FOR A DAY IN REMEMBRANCE OF OUR FALLEN VETERANS!

    • Ronan

      That’s hilarious. Though in fairness to loomis, I did something similar last night. I could have sworn today was the June bank holiday so I was settling into an evening in the sun with a few beers, when I turned tomy brother to see what his plan was for the day off.. Turns out we’re stil in May

  • Judas Peckerwood

    As a young man I briefly worked as a trash collector. It was by far the toughest, nastiest job I’ve ever had (and that’s saying something). Every one of those guys and gals deserves the $80,000 salary that Teamsters make working for NYC’s Department of Sanitation.

  • bk

    Actually, here (in Las Vegas) the private company works on holidays. I was amazed my first year here to see trash picked up on Christmas day.

    • Scotius

      As bk said, there’s a really good chance that the drivers who work for private refuse companies will have to work on Monday. Sometimes I wonder if the second half of the 20th Century actually happened. It makes me sick that, in a country as wealthy as the US, we are still treating essential workers like this.

      • It did happen. Unfortunately, the 21st century is also happening.

    • Where I am (Palo Alto), they won’t be working tomorrow. It probably has to do with what their (Greenwaste’s) contract with the city says.I have no idea if their employees are union or not.

  • Just_Dropping_By

    In comparison, the private carting industry in New York City is a largely unregulated enterprise where more than 100 carting companies, large and small, compete to pick up the refuse of 100,000 businesses. In one night, some 20 trucks from different companies could visit a single city block, bringing with them all the concomitant emissions, traffic and safety concerns.

    Query: What is preventing consolidation in the “private carting industry” in New York? Because given the nature of the business, it seems like a line of business that should have rapidly consolidated into a handful of companies.

    • Hogan

      Low barriers to entry and a highly fragmented customer base? I have no idea what the regulatory regime is like.

    • Crusty

      I don’t know but historically the carting industry had been dominated by the mafia. I don’t know if it still is today, but I’d imagine that gave some politicians an incentive to leave it alone and not push for the city’s service to invade their turf.

  • Derelict

    Add to this the drive to raise the retirement age to 70 or 72 because people live longer now. Every person who believes in raising the retirement age should be forced to do work like this. (Actually, in place of a national conscription, I’d like to see a law that makes every American spend a year doing manual labor such as garbage collecting, brick laying, road paving, etc. It might give us as a nation some insight into the true value of labor.)

    • evodevo

      I second that thought….come to think of it, they should have to deliver the mail too – as a mail carrier I can testify that customers have the most unrealistic concept of our job and that needs remedied lol.

      • Judas Peckerwood

        Even more important, mandatory time working as either a restaurant server or retail worker. Lots of attitudes would be changed for the better, I think.

    • JL

      I’m not so sure about your idea as you described it. For one thing, wouldn’t it be taking work away from the people who do those jobs as a career? Would the service-program people be unionized? What stops it from becoming a sort of more-required, less-prestigious, manual labor version of Teach for America? For another, at least with the jobs that you named, it’s valorizing labor that requires a lot of physical strength and is done mostly by able-bodied men. Is traditional women’s labor incorporated into this program too? Do disabled people who can’t do those kinds of labor end up being seen (more than they already are) as less than in our society because they can’t do the mandatory national service program?

      • Origami Isopod

        For one thing, wouldn’t it be taking work away from the people who do those jobs as a career?

        I think it’d best be paired with UBI.

        For another, at least with the jobs that you named, it’s valorizing labor that requires a lot of physical strength and is done mostly by able-bodied men. Is traditional women’s labor incorporated into this program too?

        I think this is a good point; they need experience in emotional labor, too. That said, I would hesitate to put many people in charge of caring for children, the elderly, or the disabled.

        Do disabled people who can’t do those kinds of labor end up being seen (more than they already are) as less than in our society because they can’t do the mandatory national service program?

        I suspect this would not have that great an effect on how disabled people are viewed. If anything, it might make more people more sympathetic, at least the ones deemed fit to work with vulnerable populations.

  • JL

    I never knew that so much waste work was done by private companies rather than municipal services. Why is that, in a place like NYC that has substantial municipal services? Do the municipal services not collect commercial waste? Do they just not have enough people?

    At any rate, this is awful.

    • N__B

      The city collects domestic waste for free. Businesses have to pay. The obvious solution would be to extend the Department of Sanitation to cover businesses and charge them, but somehow that’s never happened.

  • The Golux

    Around here, there’s only one person on a garbage truck – the driver. All houses have identical garbage bins, which are emptied into the truck by a mechanical arm.

    Soon enough, these trucks will be everywhere, and the job of sanitation worker will be a thing of the past.

    So instead of underpaying them for backbreaking work, they’ll get a guaranteed basic income, right?

    Oh wait…

  • Brett

    The best solution would be for the Department of Sanitation to just start picking up commercial waste on a rate schedule for cost. Next best would probably be to tighten up restrictions and set up a city-wide licensing regime on it.

    Not a big fan of the whole “divide areas of the city up into franchises” proposal. That’s some serious potential for corruption and mismanagement, in a business that already had connections to organized crime in the past.

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